As South African men struggle to define their identity, researchers grapple with what has made this country’s men into what they are.
The South African man’s reputation is in crisis. He is held responsible for one of the world’s highest rape rates, including the rape of children and babies. He perpetrates domestic violence, which is commonplace. And womanisers who prefer condom-less sex are driving the HIV/AIDS epidemic, experts tell us.
What is framing this male identity?
A range of researchers grappling with what has, and is, framing this male identity have identified economic circumstances, the new political order and HIV/AIDS as important factors.
In one study on rape in Bushbuckridge, Isak Niehaus of the University of Pretoria, found that residents blamed the increase in rape in South Africa on “democracy” and the apparent loss of control by the apartheid regime, chiefs and parents. However Niehaus found no evidence of this, but rather in the the 45 cases he examined “the clear majority of rapists were disadvantaged men who raped women to mimic masculine domination. They were sexually inexperienced youngsters, unemployed men who failed at being providers and senior men who perceived their dominant position within the household as being under threat”.
Of the 45 rapes17 were by gangs whose motives were “male bonding and sexual socialisation”.
Ideas of “sexual socialisation” have changed significantly in South Africa and, according to Mark Hunter, a doctoral student from the University of California at Berkeley, the notion of an “isoka” has evolved is an important indicator of how masculinity has been altered.
Traditional perceptions of manhood
In the early 1900s, the word was associated with coming of sexual age and referred to young men who were popular with women. Generally, an isoka had two or three girlfriends, with whom he often practised thigh sex (ukusoma) rather than penetrative sex, says Hunter who has been conducting research in Mandeni in KwaZulu-Natal.
This was seen as a youthful phase and the young man was expected to marry one of his girlfriends. A playboy who didn’t marry was denigrated as isoka lamanyala (dirty), or a man who had gone too far. Marriage and the maintenance of a homestead were viewed as the ultimate expression of manhood.
But by the end of the 20th century, growing unemployment and the high price of ilobolo (bridewealth) made marriage unaffordable to many men. Hunter says all but one of the men over 60 he interviewed were married, whereas virtually none of those under 35 were.
With few prospects of marriage, isoka manhood was now characterised simply by having penetrative sex with multiple partners. Thus, what was once a youthful phase had became an end in itself.
Multiple partners now dangerous
But, says Hunter, the association between successful manhood and many partners is currently being challenged by Aids and isoka is coming again to be associated with dirt and irresponsibility.
"Unlike funerals, weddings in Sumdumbili are a rare event. Day by day, funeral by funeral, AIDS bears harder down on the isoka masculinity," says Hunter.
"The symptoms couldn’t be more emasculating and demasculinising: some of the most virile, popular and independent bodies are steadily transformed into diseased and dependent skeletons, shunned by friends and neighbours.
"Indeed, it is at the many funerals, as mourners walk in a slow circle around the coffin, taking a shocking glance at the deceased’s diminutive body, where the contradictions of isoka are most tragically played out. Consequently, men and masculinities are under huge scrutiny and critique”.
But some men have shown a willingness to try and embrace the new rights-based South African order. Wits University’s Liz Walker has found that the post-1994 political changes have had a positive impact on a small group of men in Alexandra township for example.
Faced with a sense of individual crisis over their role as men, often as a result of being involved in domestic violence, they had been inspired to join an organisation called Men For Change and try to find a new role for themselves.
New constitution doesn't address masculinities of the past
The 1996 Constitution, and the policies and laws that followed it, have introduced a "constitutional sexuality" which promotes gender equality, recognises gays and lesbians, and has allowed citizens access to previously unavailable books, films and magazines and adult sex shops, says Walker.
But this "very liberal version of constitutional sexuality does not speak to many masculinities of the past" that are "steeped in violence and authoritarianism".
Instead, it promotes the ideal man as one "who is non-violent, a good father and husband, employed and able to provide for his family", says Walker.
While the "old masculinity" was destabilised, men were unsure how to construct a new one or to relate to women as equals.
"You know, the biggest problem facing men today is women," 28-year-old Tumi tells Walker. "Women are emancipated now. They are much more self-sufficient, they are able to do things for themselves. They don’t need us men to survive."
Mandla (33) joined Men For Change after being charged with beating his pregnant girlfriend. He admitted, "I abuse her still" even though "I want to change".
Of the 17 men interviewed, Walker says one striking common feature was the violence they had witnessed or experienced, often from their fathers, while growing up.
But the men attracted to MFC wanted a different destiny to that of their fathers, and were often motivated by wanting to be good fathers to their children.
"Confusion and uncertainty around the nature of masculinity and male sexuality, and the expectations men have of themselves, each other and women are contested and in crisis, giving rise to new notions of manhood," concludes Walker.
Time will tell whether these new notions of manhood – mitigated by AIDS, gender equality and economic hardship - enable South African men to relate to women as equals.
(Article by Kerry Cullinan from Health-e online news service. The research referred to was presented at the recent international "Sex and Secrecy" conference at Wits University.)